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Eating Las Vegas

Can a finicky gourmand who hates to gamble and can't stand crowds possibly find happiness in the loudest, craziest, most garish city in America? Gael Greene says you can bet on it.

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Las Vegas? Moi? I felt it was just a shade whimsical when my boss dispatched me to determine whether readers of my ilk (a spoiled, self-indulgent, orally fixated, congenitally paranoid New Yorker) want to . . . need to . . . ought to take a bite of the new, New Las Vegas. Not the bring-the-family Las Vegas but the luxury-resort (fuhgeddabout-the-gambling) Vegas that might actually tempt our fancy. Sorry, I'm too tight to gamble. Isn't it enough I gamble my digestive equilibrium every night to protect yours? I write for sensualists and sybarites, not for masochistic dreamers.

Vegas. I love it. Love the sleaze, the glitz, the cheese. I was born for this marble-bidet-and-high-tech pampering. Born to wallow in the old-style breakfast buffets. Love both "Mystère" and "O," haunting works by Cirque du Soleil. Love the theme parks. Love the Liberace Museum and the view from my aerie up Las Vegas Boulevard with the Chrysler Building tucked behind the Eiffel Tower and volcanoes exploding every fifteen minutes. I thought dancing waters leaping orgasmically into the air every twenty minutes would be hopelessly corny. In fact, the H2O chorus line is stirring, cooling, witty, especially if you're outside and can hear the music. And don't let me forget entertainment. It's a smorgasbord, too: Blue Man Group, Tommy Tune in EFX, classic Vegas showgirls, Flamingo's afternoon topless show, the Temptations, Tina Turner. Las Vegas is loyal too. Jerry Lewis just signed a twenty-year contract with the Orleans. He intends to live longer than George Burns.

I hate Las Vegas, too. Hate the inexplicable hour wait for bags to tumble off the carousel at this small-time airport. Panicking at the creeping hotel check-in lines, I flee to the VIP check-in, hoping somehow to be recognized as a VIP even though I'm trying to be anonymous. Not that Las Vegas knows from Manhattan status. Dedicated gamblers are the VIPs here. High rollers get flown in free, are comped into posh suites our money can't buy, and eat shark's fin and foie gras on the house. And spare me the cabbies, so friendly, so folksy, till suddenly they turn into crocodiles. ("You call this a tip?!" "I haven't got change, so I'll just keep your three bucks.")

Actually, it takes me 48 hours to find my Las Vegas mind-set. Have I wandered into the bar scene of Star Wars? Wherever I go, I find myself elbowing dawdling women and too-friendly children, crushing toes with my lethally loaded Tumi to break a path through the oncoming horde. Nothing quite prepared me for how fat Americans are. Or for the wardrobes: Seventy-year-old flab in cutoffs and camisoles, hairy backs in turquoise tanks. Scary.

From a distance, the $785 million Paris Las Vegas is brilliant with its spanking-clean, worshipful replicas of the Arc de Triomphe, l'Opéra, the Louvre, and its half-size, 7 million­ton Tour Eiffel (from Eiffel's original blueprints). Alas, inside, not even Monet-inspired carpeting masks the torturous whine of the relentless slot machines. It's cute that the hotel serving staff tosses off a few words of French. "Madame," they say. And "Merci." "Combien du bagage?" a porter asks. The supposedly upscale doubles are quite spartan, with no mini-bar, no bottled water, and smallish tubs. There's no nighttime housekeeping service, no chocolate bonne nuit, no change of sheets the second day unless you ask. This is luxury? Yes, the painted sky in the faux Paris Casino is lovely, but it's perpetual twilight on the cobbled Rue de la Paix of shops and eats -- somber, very Les Misérables.

There's almost always a line at Le Village Buffet, with its arcade of food stations dedicated to Normandy, Brittany, Burgundy, Alsace, etc., and waitresses in vintage peasant dirndls. The $10.95 breakfast feast is a bargain, with more ups than downs: lemony Hollandaise, crusty pommes Lyonnaise, a respectable omelette, smoked salmon, and salmon pastrami. The croissants make everyone else's taste plastic. The king of Parisian patisserie, Gaston Lenôtre, sent a team to coach the house crew.

To escape the gloom and jangle of this tacky Paris, we cross the street and jump on Caesars Palace's moving sidewalk in search of the Forum Shoppes. Ah, shopping, Mother Nature's Prozac. I rarely have time to shop in New York, so the Forum is like Candyland to me -- Escada, DKNY, Armani Exchange, Dior, Judith Lieber. I buy a pink straw hat and then follow the crowd past FAO Schwarz to catch the on-the-hour-every-hour fire, lightning, and drama as Atlantis rises out of a fountain in front of the Cheesecake Factory while animatronic gods struggle for power. It's a must. The two of us scope out the eclectic mall crowd at lunch in the terrace café of Spago as the Forum sky goes from afternoon bright to sunset pink and twilight, then back to dawn, while we share a Puckian pizza, a decent Caesar, a much too sweet Chinese chicken salad, and an irresistible almond-butter-crunch tart and their "best ever" brownie sundae.

We've moved closer to the equator now, to the Mandalay Bay Resort, with its vast Coral Reef Lounge and man-made jungle, hulked at the southern extremity of Vegas civilization. It's too big (3,800 rooms), too far from mid-Strip, where I'd want to be if I had just four or five days to skim the cream off this town. Still, the eleven acres of Mandalay Beach are an engineering marvel, with sand beach and four pools, including one that makes waves up to eight feet high. (It had to be turned down because it had sent surfing guests crashing into its concrete lip.) Mandalay also has a hotel within a hotel: The Four Seasons (424 rooms), its decorous lobby tacked onto Mandalay's hip and its five floors of seriously deluxe, contentedly styleless rooms stashed in the tower. Charlie Palmer Steak is confidently clubby. And the Verandah's tastefully tailored buffet is a breakfast hangout for local deal-makers. No casino. No gambling. No tumult. No pheromones.

Of course, just steps away, beyond an unmarked door, is Mandalay Bay's younger, party-animal crowd at Trattoria del Lupo (Wolfgang does Italy); China Grill; Red Square, with its ice bar; and a mating mosh at RumJungle (exotic drinks, Trader Vic­ish nibbles, spottily dressed girls who dance overhead). Worth the hike for foodies is L.A.'s Border Grill (chiles rellenos, quesadillas, griddled tacos). I keep hearing raves for Aureole too, but our one visit is a strikeout. As advertised, the room is smashing, very Mission Impossible. But the night we're there, the kitchen runs on automatic pilot, and our waiter, unbearably suave, glides in and out looking like he might kiss his own hand. With Zorro advising, we choose a $250 Cos d'Estournel from Aureole's celebrated four-story glass tower. Oh, sob. It is dull and muddy. "Sorry," says Zorro. "What do you expect of an '89?"

My lifetime stats suggest great dining doesn't require a star chef's presence. Even so, expectations flutter when we find Jean-Louis Palladin actually poking his finger into the pots in the open kitchen of Napa at the Rio. On this sultry night, our choices seem high-risk -- foie gras with rhubarb, braised pork with wild mushrooms, Kentucky short-rib pot-au-feu cooked in a bladder (don't ask). But with the first bite of ahi-and-hamachi tartare in a stunning curry emulsion, we go rocketing off into one of the best meals of the trip.

We're on the move again. Checkout time in Las Vegas seems to be about noon or one. The Hard Rock refuses to let us into our pitiful, no-frills, motel-like cubby till 4 p.m. You bet I'm grumpy. Though I do see the honey for baby-boomers on a budget: a swim-up blackjack table and showgirls lazing away. (Does someone pay them to come?) I've sworn off young boys myself, but I do crave a flirtation with Nobu's sushi bar. "Omakase" ("Let the chef decide"), we say to a veteran sensei on loan from Nobu/SoHo -- and slowly, gauging our tastes, he sculpts edible drama in a dozen acts: another one of the best meals of our marathon.

Next stop, the MGM Mirage, not to sleep but to eat and see the dolphins. The arrival of this casino, gambling impresario Steve Wynn's potent froth of luxury and theme, raised the stakes in this town's building boom. (He sold it to MGM earlier this year.) Don't miss the sensory overkill: real orchids in a stage-set rain forest, a 20-foot aquarium behind the registration desk, tigers and lions snoozing in Siegfried and Roy's Garden, and the volcano exploding outside every quarter-hour. A salsa band and a David Rockwell­detonated riot of cobalt blue, red neon, and yellow bananas draw us into the Samba Grill, a vibrating canteen in the Mirage casino, for the $28.95 all-you-can-eat Brazilian barbecue. Waiters armed with rotisserie skewers whirl by dispensing sausage and peppers, honey-basted turkey breast, chicken Hawaiian-style, and slow-roasted pork loin till you signal . . . enough.

Unlike some people I know, I didn't grow up with Renoirs on the walls, so I am ready to be wowed by the Renoir, a chintz-swathed sanctuary at the Mirage. But I am equally knocked out by the unexpected pleasure of Alessandro Stratta's $65 vegetarian tasting in this unlikely boudoir setting -- a crash of different florals, like Mario Buatta in overdrive. This is the best vegetable tasting I can recall: A pow of fresh black truffle in tempestuous cream-of-green-garlic soup. Gratin of asparagus cannelloni wrapped in spinach and morels. Marvelous sweet-pea risotto with spring vegetables and shards of Parmesan. In a moment when everyone is braising short ribs, the red-wine-simmered beauties, relished by the carnivore across the table, are unforgettable. Definitely major-league.


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